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Vote 2002

October 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: There are 20 days until Election Day. Races all around the country are going down to the wire with control of Congress in the balance. Tom Bearden reports on the close Senate contest in Colorado.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: You know, with all of the negative advertising, I thought we’d come back and by and share with you the truth.

POTENTIAL VOTER: Okay.

TOM BEARDEN: On a recent Saturday afternoon, Senator Wayne Allard, a Republican from Colorado, felt the need to go door to door in a Denver suburb to talk about the flurry of negative ads that have been launched by both sides in the campaign.

POLITICAL COMMERCIAL: Just look at the record. It’s Allard who voted to make taxpayers pay the cost of toxic waste cleanup, not the polluters who caused it; who voted three times to roll back clean air laws and even opposed tough drinking water standards.

MAN: His track record is one of the worst in Congress. Wayne Allard doesn’t get it.

TOM BEARDEN: Allard’s challenger is Tom Strickland, a lawyer and former U.S. Attorney who has never held elected office. The two men ran for the same seat six years ago. Allard won by just 40,000 votes. Most analysts say Allard won because he tagged Strickland a “lawyer-lobbyist,” a tactic he’s pursuing again this year.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Senator Allard– elected to serve the public interest. Tom Strickland made millions lobbying for special interests. Senator Allard– a leader in the US Senate: Tom Strickland, a Washington, D.C. Lobbyist. Senator Wayne Allard– making a difference for Colorado. Lawyer Tom Strickland– a millionaire lobbyist who said he “can’t remember which corporations he represented.”

TOM BEARDEN: The Allard- Strickland race features some of the most negative advertising in the country. It’s also a race too close to call. With control of the US Senate up for grabs, the ad wars are being fueled by millions of dollars from the two major political parties and various special interest groups.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESPERSON: Senator Allard, don’t say one thing in Colorado and do another thing in Washington.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESPERSON: Tell millionaire lawyer- lobbyist Tom Strickland, “it’s time to practice what you preach.”

TOM BEARDEN: The negative television ads began appearing quite early, in July. That’s partly because many Coloradoans vote early. About 30 percent will cast their ballot prior to Election Day, either by mail or at special early voting locations.

But the negative advertising is also designed to grab the attention of voters who have no ties to political parties. Colorado is fairly evenly split between registered Democrats and Republicans, with the GOP having just 180,000 more registered voters. Like the rest of the country, a majority of Colorado Democrats tend to live in the cities, Republicans in the rural areas.

So politicians go to the suburbs to woo the one-third of the state electorate who have no party affiliation. Independent pollster Floyd Ciruli says it’s those voters who are so susceptible to negative advertising.

FLOYD CIRULI, Pollster: They’re not clearly sort of filtering information through their Republican and their Democratic eye-shades. They’re just sitting there saying, “gosh, what… what am I hearing?” And so the negative ads are extremely effective with them. They’re especially attracted to ads that go to a personal issue, something they can really identify with.

TOM BEARDEN: Ciruli says the ad wars began in the summer when news of nationwide corporate scandals dominated the headlines. Strickland tried to tie Allard to the struggling telecommunications giant Qwest because of large donations he received from the company. Allard turned the issue around with this ad.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESPERSON: Tom Strickland made $25,000 in one day selling Global Crossing stock, a company under investigation by the FBI, and Strickland profited $35,000 selling his stock in Qwest while he was US Attorney.

TOM BEARDEN: Ciruli says it’s one of Allard’s most effective ads because it not only mentions two scandal-plagued companies, but also because it tries to show Strickland as a member of the wealthy elite. Ciruli says Strickland’s most effective ad tries to link Allard to a highly publicized beef recall scandal in Colorado, and questions whether his votes can be bought by big industry.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Our food safety net is failing, and so is Wayne Allard. He’s taken $600,000 from the food industry and voted their way.

WOMAN IN COMMERCIALS: He’s voted down, you know, more inspectors for the plants.

TOM BEARDEN: The risk of such negative ads is that they will confuse and turn off the voters.

TOM BEARDEN: That’s what has happened to Christina Peterson, who recently watched her 12- year-old son play lacrosse in suburban Denver. She says she hasn’t decided who will get her vote, and the ads aren’t helping.

CHRISTINA PETERSON, Undecided Voter: I hate watching TV because the commercials don’t make any sense to me. They’re very confusing. They seem to go back and forth.

TOM BEARDEN: Any chance that those TV commercials will turn you off so much that you’ll just say, “oh, the heck with it,” and not vote?

CHRISTINA PETERSON: No. No, I’ll always vote. And I love this country and I’m very proud to be in a country where I can vote, so that will never dissuade me. But I… you know, I am having a hard time

TOM BEARDEN: Television isn’t the only arena where the candidates are duking it out. On the stump, in debates, and in press interviews, the two have been battling to win over political moderates, especially the half million new residents who have moved to the state since the last campaign. Strickland repeatedly attacks Allard as being more conservative than Colorado’s mainstream voters, who went for Bush in 2000, but went for Clinton in 1992.

TOM STRICKLAND: Senator Allard is one of the few people in America who continues to embrace privatizing social security at a time when the market is as crystal clear as it has been.

TOM STRICKLAND: There’s no question that I’m the moderate, I’m the centrist in this race, and I’m running against a person who “Congressional Quarterly” rated the most partisan Republican in the Senate, with a 98 percent straight party line voting record, which is not reflective of Colorado’s political tradition.

TOM BEARDEN: Strickland says for him, the main issue in this election is the economy.

TOM STRICKLAND: We’re the only campaign talking about the economy. I mean, if you listen to my opponent, it’s “morning in America.” It’s not. It’s not… it’s not a time of prosperity right now. People are hurting, and they’re looking for leadership.

TOM BEARDEN: Allard, too, wants to be seen as the moderate candidate. When he walks in neighborhoods like this one, which didn’t even exist six years ago, he stresses issues that have broad appeal.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: I’m working hard to balance the budget, and working hard to make sure we have a strong America, and working hard to make sure that, you know, we save Social Security and our retirement plans; and working hard to make education better.

TOM BEARDEN: Allard has two main themes; one is security.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: The key issues that we’re talking about is when is it that we’re going to have a safe and secure America, and that we’re talking about economic security and we’re talking about modernizing our military primarily.

TOM BEARDEN: The other theme is his Senate record.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: I think they ought to vote for me because I have worked hard as their Senator. I’ve worked in a bipartisan way working to make a difference here in the state of Colorado. I was in the top 15 of the Senators to get legislation passed, and I want to continue that kind of effort. Service with a smile.

TOM BEARDEN: Back home, Allard’s supporters say they like his legislative record and his plainspoken style. Lynn Callison is an accountant from Arvada who attended the annual Jefferson County chili supper.

LYNN CALLISON, Allard Supporter: I believe that the most important issue in this race is having a man who will go back to Washington, DC, to do his job. He’s not there to make a splash or a flashy name or anything. He’s there to do the business of what they’re there to do. And it’s somebody who votes a good line for businesses, and it’s somebody who votes a good line for life.

GROUP CHEERING: Pro-Strickland, pro-choice! Pro-Strickland, pro-choice!

TOM STRICKLAND: Thank you.

TOM BEARDEN: Strickland voters seem to be motivated by two issues: His support for abortion rights, and the fact that if he’s elected, it could help retain a Democratic majority in the Senate. Karen Chapman is a lawyer from Littleton.

TOM BEARDEN: What’s the issue most important to you?

KAREN CHAPMAN, Strickland Supporter: Probably control of the US Senate.

TOM BEARDEN: And do you think this race hinges on that?

KAREN CHAPMAN: Every vote counts. I mean, right now the Democrats control the Senate by one vote, so every single race is important, and this is a very close one.

TOM STRICKLAND: This is mama. She keeps an eye on me still. How are you, sir? Tom Strickland.

TOM BEARDEN: Pollster Ciruli says in the end, this contest won’t be decided on any single issue, but rather on perceptions of the candidates.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: Hey, how are you folks?

TOM BEARDEN: Ciruli says Allard supporters like his low-key style, but that it hasn’t made much of an impression on much- needed new voters.

FLOYD CIRULI: When he went into this race, he had not a high negative, but not a high positive. A lot of people simply being unable to say what they think about Wayne Allard. And that’s been the disadvantage that he’s had to deal with.

TOM BEARDEN: For Strickland, it’s his profession.

FLOYD CIRULI: He’s a very good lawyer, and obviously an effective lobbyist who makes a substantial income from it, and he really has reinforced that sense with a lot of people that he is… he’s not with the people; that he is, in fact, with the elites; that he reflects a player. Do you want an individual like that fighting for you? You could argue yes. But on the other hand, I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with it, and that’s what he’s had to overcome.

TOM BEARDEN: Ciruli’s latest poll shows the race to be a dead heat, with 41 percent of likely voters choosing Allard, 38 percent for Strickland– well within the 4.4 percent margin of error. And in spite of all the money spent on advertising, Strickland has only gained one point in the polls in the last three months, while Allard has dropped by five points. Ciruli says both candidates are “stuck in an orgy of negativity.”